The former Lib Dem leader on learning to love the Tories – and the fate of the euro
‘Have you ever been in the world’s smallest lift?’ Paddy Ashdown asks when we meet at the entrance to the House of Lords. ‘It was designed by William Gladstone!’ We travel up in the lift, admiring the old-fashioned sliding doors and suited attendant. Ashdown explains that the parliamentary authorities tried to shut it down on health and safety grounds but, he says proudly, he fought to keep it open. ‘My greatest parliamentary achievement,’ he keeps saying — only half joking.
He’s still talking about the lift when we reach his office and sit down: ‘A proper Liberal Democrat council campaign,’ he declares. It is typical Ashdown — constant energy, always up for a scrap: aged 70, he has more kick to him than most politicians half his age. It is these qualities which have made him such an invaluable support for his protégé Nick Clegg.
Ashdown, who led the Liberal Democrats for 11 years after their founding in 1988, has made himself the chief defender of Clegg’s coalition to the party’s grass roots. He has little time for internal critics. Disputes about which coalition partner has too much power are, he says, ‘the bread and butter — not milk and honey, that’s for sure — of coalitions’. He is dismissive of the complaints about the compromises that the parties have had to make to make governing together possible. ‘My answer to people who didn’t understand that is: for God’s sake grow up. What did you expect?’
He warns recalcitrant Liberal Democrats that they ‘ought to realise that the success of the coalition means that there’ll be more. If the coalition fails, you can say goodbye to coalition politics — and that’s the whole purpose of our party’s being, in many ways.’ That said, Ashdown is not uncritical of the coalition. He fears that it is trying to do too much. ‘We tried to invent a new form of government which nobody had ever seen before, we tried to solve the worst economic crisis for half a century and we tried to be a radical government at the same time. You can do two of those things but not three.’
Moving his weight back in his chair, he says he has no quarrel with the substance of the government’s reforms in health, education and welfare. But, he thinks, ‘they have been pushed through a little too fast, in some cases much too fast’.
Ashdown admits ‘there is much more common ground’ with the Conservatives than he once thought. He blames his failure to grasp just how much the two parties shared on the divisions of the 1980s. There is a generation of Lib Dems, he says, ‘whose opposition to the Tories was formed under Mrs Thatcher’: himself, Charles Kennedy, Sir Menzies Campbell. These three ‘saw the Tory party as it was then. We hadn’t understood the extent to which it really had changed.’
Even as the new Tory MPs arrived after the last election, Ashdown remained suspicious of them. ‘I presumed the Tory party had been captured by these right-wing Neanderthals and I thought these young fogeys who I saw coming up in great droves to join the House of Commons were rabidly red-in-tooth-and-claw Thatcherite Conservatives — who would rather like to see Europe vanish down the plughole. But the surprise, I suppose, is that the Cameronistas, for me, account for much more of the Tory party.’
For Ashdown the real hero of the coalition is Clegg. ‘He is proving, as I always thought he would, a quite remarkable political talent,’ he says with almost paternal pride. For the first nine months Clegg was ‘run ragged’, he says, but claims the Deputy Prime Minister is now getting a far better grip of the Whitehall machine, and he positively gushes about Clegg’s ‘almost unbelievable grace under fire’. But he also recognises that relations with the Tories have not fully recovered from the ‘AV campaign’, where the Tory-supported No campaign went after Clegg in the most personal terms.
Like Clegg, Ashdown is a passionate pro-European. But asked if he thinks the euro can survive in its current form, he replies simply: ‘No, I don’t.’ He believes ‘the most likely outcome is probably a core euro. A euro that has Germany, Austria, Finland and the Benelux countries in it — you’d have to have France in there for political reasons even though economically they wouldn’t come up to the mark precisely — and maybe Sweden. Then you have a core euro and you then create the institutions to govern the euro.’
No mention of Britain. Even Paddy, it seems, now believes sterling is here to stay and that it will be joined in the bureau de change — for a while at least — by the reborn drachma and the peseta. But when I ask about William Hague’s view that Britain would be better off with a looser relationship with the European Union, he delivers his reply with steadily increasing volume: ‘If [we] don’t realise that the right reaction to these events — which will threaten us in all sorts of ways — is to deepen co-operation of our defence, our foreign affairs and our economy, then we are bloody fools.’
The stakes, he says, are high indeed. It is not just the collapse of the euro that worries Ashdown. He also fears that western civilisation itself might be in danger. ‘Say you wandered up to somebody on their way to the Forum in the year 475 and asked, “When was the first time that you began to realise that everything was falling apart?” They’d have answered: “When politicians started behaving immorally. When the usury rates in Rome were astronomically high. When the people who were most famous and had the most money were those who did bizarre things in the Forum — like Big Brother.’
When the coalition was formed, there were rumours that Ashdown was going to be given a Cabinet post. I ask if he has one more domestic political job in him. He replies with a certain satisfaction: ‘I’m really not looking for political jobs. I’ve already turned down plenty.’ It’s a denial — but one senses that if Clegg asked him in for one last scrap, the lure of the fight might be too strong for Ashdown to resist.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 17, 2011